To See Ourselves as Others See Us
Three broad reasons bring visitors to university and college websites: to be informed (find information), to be influenced (persuaded by messaging) or to interact (exchange data).
Website visitors should be able to carry out those tasks easily and in doing so have the type of digital experience to which higher education institutions aspire.
We can know if visitor experience goals are being achieved by:
- Remembering Rabbie Burns’ phrase - "Oh would some Power the gift give us, to see ourselves as others see us";
- Testing sites for the elements research and surveys demonstrate that website visitors value.
As there is a solid body of evidence that website visitors prefer web pages that load quickly, this post examines three factors that can boost page speeds. We also show how well these factors are implemented on current higher education websites.
A Website Visitor’s Perspective on Speed
Competing interests often result in content, design or other features compromising page loading speed. Web teams are frequently unaware of this issue, because they don’t systematically test pages for speed. And, if they do test them, they may only test a handful of pages.
Google’s PageSpeed Insights service tests the principal components of a web page that influence how quickly it loads and, using a weighting algorithm, assigns a ‘PageSpeed’ score for desktop and mobile access speeds. Thus, we have a ‘visitor perspective’ and a test identifying components that can be optimised for a better visitor experience.
In our opinion, page loading speed is a ‘hygiene’ factor. Get it wrong and it irritates visitors. Get it right and no one notices, as it’s just making website task completion easier.
We ran the main home page for 1,498 university and college websites in six countries (Australia, Canada, Great Britain, Ireland, New Zealand and the United States) through the full Google PageSpeed test battery to understand how three determinants of page speed are implemented on these websites.
How Fast are Higher Education Website Homepages?
We recorded the desktop PageSpeed score for each website (we will be addressing mobile devices and higher education websites in a subsequent post). The PageSpeed score ranges from 0 to 100 – with the latter being the best score. We aggregated the data across the sites from the six countries and broke the results into quartiles.
Graph 1: Google PageSpeed Desktop Scores for 1,498 Higher Education Websites
As the graph shows about one quarter of sites are in the top quartile – with relatively few options for optimisation. At the other end of the scale around 1 in 10 sites offer many optimisation options to bring page loading performance up to a level that visitors would perceive to be acceptable.
How Do We Fix Slow Pages?
(1) Server Compression
Turn on server compression – usually referred to as GZIP or Deflate compression. This compression method is a standard web server feature and offers a material impact on the speed with which web page elements are served out to browsers.
Here’s the relative proportion of sites using and not using compression:
|GZIP Turned on||GZIP Turned Off|
Table 1: Proportion of 1,498 Higher Education Websites Using GZIP Compression on the Main Home Page
(2) Image Compression
High resolution images and background video on homepages support messaging and branding, but they can do so at the cost of performance. Our research shows that most websites use large image files that inflate page loading times.
Here are the summary results. The Min column shows the site with the least amount of image data available for compression – in some cases zero, as the content editors have compressed all the images. The Max column represents the opposite case, a site which has significant available compression capacity – one US site could eliminate 24MB of image downloads through compression (remember, this is according to Google's PageSpeed tests). The Average column shows the typical available image compression capacity – around 1MB of file transfer that could be eliminated. One can imagine the noticeable improvement for page visitors on mobile devices:
|Min KB||Max KB||Average KB|
Table 2: Minimum, Maximum and Average Amounts of Data Compression Available for 1,498 Higher Education Websites Tested Using Google PageSpeed Insights
In theory, this is a simple problem to fix. Free services, such as JPEG Optimizer or TinyPNG offer flexible image compression – with experimentation to balance quality with speed. The hard part is ensuring that image compression becomes part of a content editing process, so it happens every time.
(3) Optimising Visible Content Loading
The third fix makes sure all visible content loads first. This approach is often referred to as prioritising above-the-fold (bottom of the screen) content. Following this prioritisation rule ensures that visitors can start reading the main page content while subsidiary content or page-rendering scripts are loaded.
Here are the summary results for above-the-fold content loading:
|YES – Visible Content Prioritised||NO - Visible Content Not Prioritised|
Table 3: Visible Webpage Content Prioritisation for 1,498 Higher Education Websites Tested Using Google PageSpeed Insights
The majority of higher education websites have implemented HTML and CSS in such a way as to ensure that above-the-fold content is loaded first. About 1 in 8 sites could make further changes and improve the visitor experience.
Two Key Takeaways
(1) We tested the main homepages for major universities and colleges. It is a reasonable working hypothesis that these pages receive more attention than others, so likely represent the upper end of performance. But, other pages may receive many more visitors and need more attention.
(2) Many institutions have large numbers of websites: let’s refer to these as web estates. The individual websites receive varying levels of attention and upkeep – but to visitors they are all the same institutional website. Once you’ve established how many websites you own and operate it would make sense to test them all to ensure visitors enjoy a consistent and optimised experience.